The Witches: A Folk Tale, by Daniel Bosch

I

Summer. Dawn.

The camera sees what a 17 year-old boy sees when he stands where a path meets a paved road at the edge of a dirt farm. The boy peers to his right and sees the empty road stretch through farmland to the horizon. The boy peers to his left and sees the empty road. He can read, not far up ahead, a sign that states the nearest town’s name and a distance: 5. Cars trundle past him in the direction of town: one, two, three, four, five. The boy’s gaze follows each car until its dark form is absorbed by the curve of the earth.

Blackout.

*

The boy’s father calls: “Go on, then.”  The camera sees what the boy sees: the legs, then the rear end, and then the back of his father, clad in dirty, torn, and patched coveralls. His father is bent over the front left axle of a tractor. There is no front left wheel; the tractor’s weight is borne by a stump. The boy can see, beyond the tractor, the wooden front porch of his father’s house, crowded with furniture and bric-a-brac.

His father’s voice again: “Go on.  It’s family. She may not last.”

The camera’s gaze returns to the boy’s father’s body. It zooms in on a small abstraction in sweat that paints the back of his neck, then it shifts to the road. The boy’s father has not looked up from his labor.

The boy calls back: “All right, then.”

He steps into the road. He walks away from town.

Blackout.

*

The camera sees what the boy sees as he follows the road through fallow farmland, walking close to the shoulder. The camera sees what the boy sees as a car or two or three passes, headed toward town: idle headlights, flashes of glass and chrome, trunks, rumble seats. One car honks.

More rural landscape, barely tended farms. Birds startled from brush at the roadside. A snake warming itself in the road hears the boy approach and slides into the grass as boy and camera watch. The boy walks until he reaches the river. Parallel trestle bridges cross it: one with a single lane for cars, the other wide enough for twin train tracks, northbound, southbound. The boy uses the railroad bridge to cross the river. As he crosses he looks down into muddy water that swirls below. Water birds call.

Blackout.

*

The camera sees what the boy sees as he sets foot on the more thickly forested far side of river. He walks on the railroad bed, and the camera watches as he adjusts his gait to match the uniform spacing between ties. Once or twice the boy hears, from the road, the faint sound of a car passing. The boy keeps walking, keeps stepping on and passing over railroad ties; the camera and the boy silently count them. Audibly but softly, and slowly, the boy says the names of his aunt and his cousins aloud: “Mae, Carl, Gina, Pearl, Tom, Ada, Connie.” The boy says the names again, one name per tie. He keeps walking, and he keeps saying the names, until he’s yelling the names into the empty tracks, into the woods, and then into the sky, which is what the camera sees.

Blackout.

*

Slowly the camera confirms it: the boy sees what he sees.

The wreck of a train. Engine, flatbeds, and freight cars, destroyed, derailed, deranged, lie like long twists of newspaper you might use to start a fire. The trees that line the railbed seem to lean in, to watch the boy, menacingly. Rust. Splintered wood. Where the tracks are torn up, the earth is deeply gouged.  The coal car and three wooden-sided freight cars, plus a red caboose, had followed the derailed engine, not knowing what else to do. The camera studies the railbed, littered with smashed wooden crates, broken jars, trash. Chests and suitcases lie open-mouthed yet say nothing; the undestroyed, the valuable, has long-since been discovered, taken. The boy sees his reflection in a half-barrel full of rainwater he’s disturbed as he moves about the debris: we see him, for the first time, but the image is blurry. He bends to pick up the left leg of a rag doll, which he examines closely—especially at the tear—then pockets. The camera’s eyes are his as he follows several deep ruts cut in the earth when wagons had approached the crash. The camera looks back, once, in the direction from which he’d come. The boy walks on.

Blackout.

*

The camera peers ahead, to where the railroad tracks split. The boy follows the left branch. Soon the woods on either side of the tracks thin out. The camera’s gaze takes in flat land, some scrub. At the horizon, miles away, low hill country rises.  At the sight of a burned out tree, its hollow core big enough for a man to crouch in, the boy leaves the railroad for a dusty path through woody scrub. The path leads, in a few hundred yards, to farm fields. A blue roof over alluvium. The crop is calf high. No one, nothing but the boy stirs. The camera can find no sign of recent labor. The boy sees weeds, bugs, tangles of crop. The camera pans across the sky to find the hot sun, soon to decline. The camera studies the boy who squirms awkwardly, shifting his arms right and then left. He’s taken his suit coat off, and as the camera watches him fold it over his left arm, we see that the coat matches his pants. (His father had gotten married in that suit.)  The boy keeps to an overgrown wagon path as he walks between cropped fields.

Blackout.

*

The camera records everything the boy sees. He walks and walks. At last the wagon path shows signs of recent use, footprints, horseshoe prints, shadow-blackened wheel ruts. Now the fields end in some low scrub, just beyond which stands a few tall trees planted purposefully in a line. Soon, the boy pans right to see a welter of trampled-upon berry bushes, every bit of not-nearly-ripe fruit picked off, dozens of greenish-black squandered berries crushed into the ground where the bushes have been trampled. Small, bare feet have left impressions in the mud the berry bushes cling to.

Blackout.

*

A woman’s voice. Clearly she knows what she’s saying, but it’s not intelligible to the boy.

The camera sees what the boy sees as he walks toward the crest of the line of trees. A set of three low buildings comes into focus where it’s pitched against the trees, as if hiding from view. The boy pauses, and the camera registers the arm motions that put his suit coat back on. He approaches the low buildings, slowly. The camera sees the knuckles of the boy’s right fist rap twice on the front door. While the camera gazes at the planks of the door, weather-worn and bruised, we hear muffled voices, the shoving of furniture legs against floorboards, thudding footsteps, heavy and light. Then the door opens, slowly.

Blackout.

Musical Interlude

II

The camera watches as the door opens to reveal Mae, the matriarch, a woman of more than forty, robust, dressed in a simple patterned frock and an apron. Mae smiles, her arms spread wide. The boy steps into her embrace, into Mae’s home.

Blackout.

*

The camera comes to seconds later. In Mae’s embrace the boy has turned circles, as if their hug were a spindle and he were thread upon it. Now she steps back and spins him again, with his hands held high above his head, and the camera’s gaze, as it spins with him, can see only the blur of the room and three girls’ faces as he’s turned, dizzied. The boy has never felt like this.  “Mae,” the woman had said, as she had clenched him most tightly. “I’m Mae. And you? You are your father’s son.”

The camera’s spinning slows, and the boy sees the three girls smiling welcome: Gina, Ada, Connie. Two of the girls’ mouths are marred by berries: until the camera studies their smiles more closely, the boy thinks that their eye teeth are missing. It is their turn: as a team they envelop boy and camera in a group-hug. Gina presses her head against the boy’s breast fiercely.

Blackout.

*

The sound of the girls’ laughter.

The camera is led by Gina, fourteen, and Ada, eleven, at left, and Connie, six, who tugs while stumbling, at right. The house is entered, and its rooms are entered, and their furnishings pass by, are passed by, in series, blurred. Sideboards, shelves, a book on the floor, windows half-shuttered, windows with dingy sheers, a table top, threshold after threshold, beds, dressers, knotted rag rugs, a nightstand upon which rests a silvered comb and a brush full of hair, glowing, sunlit, blond. The girls talk. The girls laugh. The language they use sounds so familiar. The boy’s body is the camera’s—pulled first one way, then the other. He sees Connie’s face full of joy and then contorted by frustration as the boy is led astray by the older girls and she dragged along with him, an afterthought. Parlor, kitchen, a closet stuffed head-high with shoeboxes, another closet nearly empty. Seven rooms, eight rooms, nine. Gina opens every door they pass, except for one.  The camera has passed it several times, without pausing for a second. Now the camera studies it.

Blackout.

*

Outside again, into bright day. The boy is dragged along by the girls in a serpentine journey to the landmarks of Mae’s property: the stump where wood is cut for the fire; the chicken coop, where a single ancient rooster struttingly presides over no visible hens; a patch of grass, at the center of which is a fire-pit ringed with stones; and then, reached only by a long journey along a narrow path through a bramble, the sudden, iron-fenced burying ground, better-tended than it ought to be.

The boy looks through bars to read the dates on ten stones. The names are rubbed away, illegible.

Gina’s voice:  “That’s where Pearl will go.” The boy’s gaze follows her instruction and finds a fresher grave, on which weeds have made only spotty progress. There is no stone.

Ada’s voice: “But now it’s just her leg.”

Connie’s voice, iambically: “But now it’s just her leg.”

Blackout.

*

The camera crosses an interior threshold, seeing what the boy sees: Mae in the kitchen, making sweet potato pie. The girls can be heard as footfalls throughout the house, doors that squeak open and slam closed, names called, laughter, unintelligible but familiar sounding words articulated into whines. Every so often Ada or Connie runs through the kitchen, but it is as if they are in another world. Gina is only a voice, older.

With a small blade, Mae has skinned a dozen sweet potatoes. The peelings have been shoved toward one corner of the broad kitchen table; some have fallen and the camera finds them scattered on the floor. To her right, Mae has raised a midden of long potato slices. Most of the table is dusted with coarse flour. In the table’s center is a mound of flour two or three inches high, as big around as a kettle bottom. The camera tracks the middle and index fingers of Mae’s right hand as they dip into a small tub of lard and pull forth a gob she flings into the center of the mound.

“You can help,” says Mae.

The camera approaches, slowly, still watching Mae’s right hand, which has dipped again into the lard and has flung a second gob into the flour, such that a tiny blast of flour is scattered onto the table. From off camera, Mae lets fall into the mound a small rain of coarse salt and an even lighter rain of soda. Off camera, Mae’s left hand takes the boy’s right hand. Mae’s hand guides his into the mound. She takes his index and middle fingers and pushes them into the lard and the lard into the flour, pushes lard and flour down firmly, as if she thought she could touch the floor. The camera studies his fingers as they repeat what they’ve been told to do.

Mae pulls the boy’s body in front of hers, and now takes both his hands, and instructs them in how to work lard into flour. The boy’s hands learn. They cooperate, they take turns pressing the clay-like crust which has begun to form. Encouraged by Mae, his hands gather flour that has been shoved away from the mound, draw it back toward the center. Her fingers teach his fingers how to prod and push the larded flour. From off camera, Mae’s right hand sprinkles two teaspoons of water onto the mix and some of it falls on the boy’s fingers. Then with both of her hands she guides both of his hands, pressing the crust, scraping it up into a rough ball and flattening it; incorporating, gradually, more and more of the flour; with fingertips drawing wetter bits from the surface of the table and adding it to the ball and quickly casting scant handfuls of flour onto the table’s sticky surface. Gradually, slowly, crust for a single pie is ready to be rolled.

The camera cannot show it, but Mae has moved closer and closer to the boy, and by now her body is pressed tight to his from behind. The sounds of the girls’ play have gradually diminished and grown less frequent. Mae’s hands dust with flour and then gather the ball and set it carefully aside, wrapping it in a towel she has also dosed.

The process is repeated. The boy’s hands mature into the work, Mae’s hands do less guiding. The boy is silent, but Mae begins to hum. By the third iteration the boy’s hands scoop flour onto the table, and his fingers dip into the lard; he awkwardly flicks two gobs of fat into the mound of flour. Mae’s hands rain salt, soda, water. By the fourth crust, Mae’s hands have pulled back a bit, and she lightly holds the boy’s wrists. Her humming is stronger, but still gentle.

As the fourth crust is shaped into a ball and lightly dusted, Mae’s left hand brings into view her long blond rolling pin, like a fifth forearm. The boy’s hands and arms fall from view.  Mae’s right hand takes up a half-cup of flour. The camera watches. Mae draws the length of the pin through her right hand.

Blackout.

We hear Mae’s voice: “See, I told you.  You can help.”

*

Evening.

The camera is in a very dim room off the bright, candle-lit dining room, and it can see, past a doorframe, the dining room table and the threshold of a short passage that leads to the kitchen. The girls’ process into the kitchen: Gina, Ada, Connie. Voices and footfalls and laughter can be heard, amid the clang of dishes and silverware and metal cups being gathered. Carl, mid-thirties, and Tom, about fifty, are silhouettes, seated on both sides the doorframe. The boy sits, too, and the gaze he shares with the camera studies the edges of the men’s dark forms, closely, so that we can see dark crops of facial hair and the gleam of oils and sweat on their faces, and so that details in the dining room come in and out of view: candles burning, the edge of a plate, a shelf that runs the length of the wall across the room. The shelf bears a chipped mirror, no larger than a sheet of paper; more tin candle holders, from several of which rise stumps of wax; several dried flowers, blue-petaled, with stems the color of ash; a blue jay’s feathers; the bare grin of a lizard’s skull. Gina’s and Ada’s bodies blur past the camera as they cross the dining room to set the table with dishes and food and cups.

Blackout.

*

Mae’s voice, from the kitchen:  “Girls?” The camera sees Mae, Gina, Ada, and Connie, the youngest girl, enter the dining room, each bearing some portion of the meal: a bowl of gravy, and bread, and pies, and bowls of greens and a metal pitcher. Each stands behind a chair at the table. The camera watches as Carl and Tom shift on their chairs so that they face the boy and can no longer see into the dining room. The men lean over their thighs, elbows at their knees, heads in their hands. In the mirror all the way across the dining room, the camera sees what the boy sees: a shard of Mae’s face, her mouth. It can see Ada’s right hand rise to meet Connie’s left hand. Mae hums for a moment, a fragment of a song that seems familiar. The girls respond with something very close to the same fragment, humming, until Gina sings the words.

Blackout.

The strange yet familiar song, with words this time, and sung more forcefully, by Mae, one known word audible: “Pearl.”

*

From the dim room again, the camera sees Carl and Tom eating from hunks of sweet potato pie, greedily, and pausing only to take swigs of water from metal cups. Items in the dining room are gilded by a single candle. Mae and the girls are nowhere to be seen. Tom stops eating long enough to ask the boy, “How are you family?”

The camera studies the men’s faces and the movements of their hands from plate and cup to mouth. The camera studies the boy’s left hand as it holds the plate and studies his right hand as it moves from the plate and rises toward the lens and then descends again to take up the cup and raise it to the lens and then, slowly, sets the cup back down.

The camera watches the men’s faces, first one, then the other, as the boy speaks: “My mother was Mae’s sister.” A long pause: Carl’s face, then Tom’s. “She died when I was born.”  Tom’s face, then Carl’s. “My father raised me.”

The camera watches Carl finish his pie, attends to Carl’s eyes as he carefully studies the boy’s features. The camera zooms in to see the dim, blurry shape of the boy’s face in the glossy surface of Carl’s eyes. Carl says:  “I can see it.”

Carl says:  “What was your mother’s name?”

Can the camera see the boy’s lips move in Carl’s eye? The boy’s voice says: “Pearl.”

The camera turns to see Connie standing in the doorway, framed by the golden candlelight in the dining room and holding to her chest, with both hands, a large ceramic jug. Tom twists his body around and lunges anxiously for the jug, wresting it from the girl. He no sooner has uncorked it than he tips it up on his forearm to take a long slug. Connie has disappeared. The camera watches Tom hand the jug to Carl. Carl tips it up and drinks. He offers the jug to the camera, which looks into the jug’s mouth, studies its rounded lip. When the boy tips the jug on his own forearm, the jug disappears.

Blackout.

Musical Interlude

III

Mae is a rough shamble above the boy and the camera, and she shakes them, gently. When his eyes finally open the camera sees Mae place one rough palm over his mouth, then another over his forehead. She smiles. She waits as he grows calm. It is as if she is counting. Then she instructs the boy by bringing one of index finger perpendicular to her lips.

Mae tugs him up to his feet. He’s unsteady from drink, from sleep. Mae pulls him, in pants, suspenders, and shirt, barefoot, out of the side room. The camera glimpses Carl’s and Tom’s drunk, sleeping bodies: they are still, but they look as if they are scratching at the thin mattresses beneath them, after a comfort just out of reach.

The camera sees Mae shut the door to the side room. She reaches to the floor for a candlestick, and then camera and boy follow that light in her left hand, as she leads them, down the hall. Unsure from drink, the boy sees what the camera sees: fuzzy dim fixtures and furnishings, wainscoting, ceilings falling to become floors. This dim journey ends at the door the girls had led him past so many times.

Blackout.

*

Mae’s face, close enough to fill the camera frame: the sound of a soft kiss on the boy’s forehead.

“Here is Pearl,” Mae says. “You must know Pearl.”

And then the mysterious door is open, and the boy follows Mae into the room beyond.

Blackout.

Distant train whistle.

*

Dim candlelight. At first the camera can barely see. The sound of water, gently moving in a half barrel, then falling from a cotton cloth as it rises like a cloud from the surface. The camera pulls back to find a mirror. Its base rests on a plain white cloth on a low chest of drawers, flat as if ironed in place. The camera studies the reflection of the boy’s torso, moves slowly down from right shoulder to right flank. Mae’s back and shoulders, clothed in a semi-transparent shift, pass into and then out of view. The camera zooms to find her hands, washing the boy’s shoulder with soap and warm water.

Distant train whistle.

The camera appreciates how Mae works her deliberate way over the boy’s body, scrubs it gently with soap, rinses it with warm water, massages it, explores his smooth chest, his sinusoidal curve of his lower back and buttocks. When Mae moves close behind the boy, her breasts press against his clean, wet shoulder blades. The camera watches as Mae brings soapy hands around his waist. Her breathing, suddenly audible, quickens.

Blackout.

*

The camera sees what the boy sees: Mae’s hands soap his scrotum and stroke his penis, which quickly stiffens. She mimics the motions she had made at the kitchen table, as she floured the rolling pin, but her gesture is drawn out. The camera is fascinated, the boy doubly intoxicated now.

Mae’s voice, as if at the boy’s ear, while her hands slide along his penis: “This is Pearl’s.”

The boy sees what the camera sees as Mae moves around the half barrel to face to boy, and then steps, slowly, into the warm water. Her hands at his shoulders steady him. She bends at the knees, and, rising, pours water from her hands over her shift. The camera sees Mae’s fallen breasts; her dark nipples blossom into visibility under the thin cloth. It watches as with her right hand Mae brings the boy’s left hand to her shoulder, then slowly draws his palm and fingers across her breasts. It sees her smile at the boy, it watches as with her left hand, Mae reaches to the hem of her shift and raises it slowly, as a curtain in a theatre. The camera’s gaze tracks the wet hem as it rises and the dark curls of Mae’s pubic hair come into view. The boy watches as Mae guides his left hand to touch the mound of her vulva. Gently, but with determination, she presses his fingers into her labia, patiently explores the cleft and folds. Mae is damp.

“Pearl is like this, too,” says Mae, smiling.

Blackout.

The sound of Pearl taking a sudden deep breath, the sound of a distant train’s whistle.

*

The sound of water falling into the barrel: the camera sees Mae rinsing the boy in cascades she pours from a tin cup. Water falls across the camera’s view, and the boy shuts his eyes, and it is as if a still camera’s shutter has closed. The boy’s eyes open to find Mae drying him, lightly, quickly, with a soft towel.

Mae says, “Come.” The camera is led as the boy is led, across the room. Beyond Mae, a bed comes into view, the bed where Pearl lies. A single candle burns on each nightstand.

The camera studies Pearl, eighteen, emaciated, thin patches of hair pushed across her scalp by a wet comb, sores on her cracked lips; her countersunk eyes express pain, too, but mainly exhaustion, as she sees the boy approach. So diminished is Pearl, to the boy she seems bodiless, a head set on a pillow as a specimen against a backing sheet. Her lips part, as if to speak, weakly. Her eye teeth are missing. Pearl’s chest heaves a little; some of her breaths whistle.

The camera jerks forward a step, as Mae guides the boy with a gentle but firm hand at his back. “Come,” she says. “You are for Pearl.” The boy watches his own approach to the edge of the bed, to Pearl. He can feel Mae’s breasts, her warm belly pressed to his naked back, her thighs against the backs of his legs. Mae takes hold of the boy’s wrists, and as she had done at the kitchen table, with the flour, guides his hands toward Pearl. Under Mae’s hands the boy’s hands slip under the covers, begin to explore Pearl’s chest and belly. The camera sees how the coverlets shift as the boy reaches forward. His fingertips find ribs below a kid glove cushion of skin. Mae guides his hands toward Pearl’s breasts, toward immersion, toward Pearl’s nipples, which stiffen slightly under his fingers’ brush. The boy’s gaze fixes on a candle flame. Mae’s hands coach and coax his hands, and together they massage Pearl’s breasts. The boy’s fingertips find knots of tumor, asymmetries tangled in her ribs. Pearl grimaces, and shudders, and for one brief instant the camera sees, she seems to smile.

Mae guides the boy’s right hand down and across Pearl’s sunken belly, to the uppermost curls of her pubic mound. Mae guides the boy’s fingers toward Pearl’s vulva, where her own fingers join his, gently probing folds. Slowly, Pearl’s hips respond. Mae guides the boy’s right index finger toward Pearl’s clitoris. The surface of the coverlet is the surface of an ocean. The camera studies, patiently, its motions, translates them into an inarticulate but familiar language, the motions, the language of four hands at a floured kitchen table.

With a determined movement, tracked by the camera, Mae draws both of the boy’s hands toward Pearl’s hips, and then she presses his them lower, the fingertips under Pearl’s buttocks. With Mae’s help the boy lifts Pearl’s hips and shifts them closer to the edge of the bed, closer to him. Her hips move too easily. The boy can sense an absence of mass.

The boy sees what the camera sees: Mae’s hands toss Pearl’s coverlet and blanket and sheet aside. All of Pearl’s left leg is a short stump, its head wrapped in turban of cotton cloth. The cloth is brownish pink where blood has dried and pus has seeped. Mae’s left hand grasps the boy’s penis, kneading, stroking. Her right hand tugs at Pearl’s left hip, pulling her pelvis closer to the boy’s. The camera watches as with her own right hand Mae takes the boy’s right hand and guides it to Pearl’s vulva.

The boy’s gaze is the camera’s. Its view is aerial, coastal, traveling up and down Pearl’s body, against which its vision crashes, like surf. In the dim light she is gray, darker than she could really be. Pearl’s right leg and her lower torso up to her waist, exposed, move under his touch. The boy watches as Mae takes her left hand from his penis and then pushes his left hand, fingers extended, across Pearl’s belly, toward Pearl’s left breast. He watches as Pearl’s breath accelerates—every fifth or sixth a whistle. The camera watches Pearl’s mouth, which moves as if she is eating, timidly, as if she is trying to chew her own breath, to eat a meal of small words. No sound comes forth. Pearl pushes her head back into the pillow on which it rests. She juts a chin that, wet with drool, points at the ceiling.

The camera watches Pearl. With her body pressed tightly against his back, and with her breasts pressed against his shoulder blades and her thighs against his hamstrings, Mae works the boy’s penis into a full erection. Mae’s right hand has told the boy’s right hand how to touch Pearl. The camera sees the boy’s hand take Mae’s instruction. Mae’s breath at the boy’s right ear is warm, salacious.

“You can help,” she says. “We need you to help,” she says. “You are for Pearl.” The camera sees what the boy sees: his own hands, and Mae’s hands, moving over Pearl’s body, which has come to a weak life. The camera studies how three labor together in the dim light. It tracks how Mae brings the tip of the boy’s penis to Pearl’s vulva, and, with a tug at her hips, presses it between her labia.

Blackout.

*

The sound of a distant train whistle.

The camera sees the boy’s penis enter Pearl. It watches her hips shudder. Pearl makes an articulate, unfamiliar sound, as if mimicking the younger girls’ language. With one last thrust of her hips against the boy’s buttocks, pushing his hips forward, Mae has backed away. The boy is deep in Pearl. With her right thigh and the stump of her left thigh, she clutches at the boy’s hips.  The boy’s hands find her soft buttocks, and he lifts her slight hips to meet his thrusts. With his fingertips he can feel her coccyx. The boy utters an articulate but unfamiliar sound.

The camera sees what a seventeen year-old boy sees. The camera moves as the boy’s head moves, as he stands at the edge of a young woman’s bed, as he pulls their hips closer together, as he ejaculates into her. Pearl’s breath sounds its distant whistle.

Blackout.

Musical Interlude

IV

The subtly lit not-quite black of the back of a young man’s eyelids, or perhaps the interior of a camera.

The sounds of footfalls, of girls’ voices. Doors creaking open, clicking shut.

The camera sees what a young man sees: on a cracked, water-damaged ceiling, the map of an unfamiliar world. It sees, when he sits up in Pearl’s bed, with his legs under her coverlet, her sheet, her blanket, no sign of Mae, no Pearl. It sees twin candles burned down to pale stumps, and a silent chiffarobe. The half-barrel is gone. The young man’s suit and shirt lie across the back of a chair. His shoes are on the floor beside a dresser of deal. The camera sees, in the mirror, blurred images of the young man in motion. He has jumped up in a panic, too soon, his forehead overfull with a strange fluid drawn from his belly. The camera sees the young man, unsteady, then bent over, his head clutched in his hands.

In the mirror, the camera watches the young man rush to put on his clothes and shoes.  Then the camera sees what the young man sees: his shoes and pant’s legs and the wooden floor slats as he pounds out of the bedroom and down the long hallway and crosses the threshold, the kickplate of the front door that swings open before him, his reflex recoil from the brightness of the porch and the world beyond. Young man and camera pause on the edge of the front steps until they see an ellipsis in gray cotton dresses as it enters the woods, the girls trailing behind Tom and Carl in a procession, leaving him behind. His head and eyes ache in the dappling light, and the camera sees better than the young man sees. Tom and Carl carry what the three girls follow. The young man dashes across the yard to join them.

By looking over the girls’ shoulders, the camera sees Tom, then Carl. Each holds one end of a too-small body, bound in narrow strips of white sheeting like a mummy. Tom walks forward. He holds, with two hands behind his back, a loop of canvas that is tied around the body at the shoulders. Carl follows Tom, his right hand holding the body’s single leg by the heel. The camera and the young man glimpse Mae, wearing a white dress, wearing something sparkly in her hair, a rhinestone tiara. She leads the troupe toward the burying ground. Mae does not look back.

No one speaks. When the procession reaches the burying ground, the young man and the camera see an open wound of dark earth. A shovel leans against the next gravestone. Something—a rotten root? a long-dead snake?—lies next to the freshly opened grave. Something the size of a full-grown woman’s leg.

The camera watches Mae push open the gate and turn. Its gaze peers into hers as she sees the young man has joined the procession. Tom and Carl enter the burying ground with the body; the girls follow. When the young man meets her at the gate, Mae’s gaze fixes his, and he mistakes this for permission to enter. The young man steps forward, but Mae stops him, gently placing her right hand on his shoulder. The young man sees what the camera sees in Mae’s eyes. Carefully he takes note of the nothing she says and its warmth, so strong, so familiar, he almost understands it. The young man turns, and like the camera he sees that Tom and Carl have set the body down beside the grave, that now they walk back toward the gate. Mae takes her arm from the young man’s shoulder, lets Carl and Tom pass. The young man backs up a few short steps. When Carl and Tom stand beside him, outside the burial ground, Mae pushes the gate’s tongue slowly toward the latch. Gina, Ada, and Connie have taken their places at three sides of the grave’s open rectangle.

The latch clicks shut. The camera watches as Mae nods to the young man, turns, and walks toward the grave. The camera sees what the young man sees as he turns, not wanting to:  the beaten grass of the path, the backs of Carl and Tom. For ten steps, not wanting to, he follows them. The camera turns back once: Mae and the girls have each taken another’s hands, formed a circle over a rectangle of air.

The camera and the young man follow Tom and Carl.  But they keep their distance.

Blackout.

Musical Interlude

V

The camera sees the path the young man walks. He’s walking home; he’s reversing his path; this is the same terrain he’d crossed to reach Mae’s house.

When the young man reaches the first cultivated fields, the camera scans them for signs of activity. Tom and Carl and a mule are at work an acre away.

The young man walks. The camera studies everything. Everything the young man passes, he studies. Each blink fixes a sight forever.

Blackout.

*

The camera sees what the young man sees. Both slow to halt. This is the site of the derailment, but there is no sign of the wreck. The same tall trees lean in, but this time the camera sees only evidence of a light wind blowing, bent branches, stirring leaves.

The camera’s gaze is the young man’s gaze. He’s taken a seat on the railroad track. Isn’t this the spot where the cow-catcher had gouged the earth? When the young man wipes his brow on his coat sleeve, the camera sees his shadowed arm rise, it follows the sleeve as it is pulled across its field of vision, and it measures the streak of sweat left on it. With care not to break its contents, he takes a package from his coat pocket. It is a hunk of sweet potato pie, wrapped in lard-spotted newspaper. The camera watches as the young man eats, slowly. It gazes at the tracks, at the edges of the trees where they seem to touch the sky, at the sun. The young man leans forward and lays his head on the railroad track, as if he might hear something. The camera sees the world sideways. The young man hears nothing.

The camera watches the young man’s fingers push a last bite of pie into his mouth. He finishes chewing, and the camera studies the young man’s hands. Carefully he refolds the newspaper around the remaining pie, and then replaces the packet, gingerly, in his coat pocket. The camera’s gaze rises as he rises, then it stoops: the young man sees a rag doll at the edge of a mud puddle, and the camera sees the young man’s reflection in the puddle as he leans over the doll to pick it up, but his face is indistinct. The camera sees the young man’s fingers press a flare of cotton batting into the doll’s left hip where the leg has been torn off.

Blackout.

*

The young man sees what the camera sees as he crosses the river: trestles, rusted boltheads, trestles’ shadows, the river’s blue-green muscle. He walks. The road soon appears. The young man walks. The camera watches his shoes measuring the road. He walks. He walks.

The camera sees the sun declining in the west.

Blackout.

*

The camera sees a weathered post by the road. It marks the edge of a dirt farm and the end of the short path to the young man’s father’s house. Standing in the path, the young man sees what the camera sees: his father, bent at the waist, his upper torso cantilevered over the open front end of his tractor.

The whistle of a distant train.

Blackout.

*

The young man turns his back on his father, his father’s house, his father’s farm. When he reaches the road, he turns toward town. The young man walks.

A car passes him.

He walks. He walks. His steps kick up dust and rocks.

A truck passes him. The young man walks.

Blackout.

Music!


Daniel Bosch’s poems riffing on four films starring Tom Hanks were awarded the first Boston Review Poetry Prize in 1998. His poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in Poetry, Slate, The TLS, Agni, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, and The Paris Review. He is the author of Crucible (Other Press, 2002), and Octaves, legible at www.beardofbees.com He is Senior Editor at www.berfrois.com.

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